Creating a circular economy is an essential sustainability target for stakeholders across the plastic value chain. With notable market drivers, including increasing regulatory pressures, we are witnessing a surge in market activity that will impact the entire landscape over the next decade and beyond. Conventional mechanical recycling methods are necessary but given the inferior product properties this downcycling will only go so far; this is where chemical recycling and dissolution enters the picture.
In this leading report, IDTechEx provides independent market forecasts, industry analysis and critical technical assessment on pyrolysis, depolymerization, gasification, and dissolution processes both in-use today and being proposed for the near future to enable a circular economy.
The existing ISO definition (ISO 472: 2013: 2.1690) states: feedstock (=chemical) recycling: recycling of plastic waste: conversion to monomer or production of new raw materials by changing the chemical structure of plastic waste through cracking, gasification, or depolymerisation, excluding energy recovery and incineration.
Headlines on the investments, planned expansions, and real-world product launches are all accelerating in their frequency and scale. The largest petrochemical companies, consumer goods companies, and other key stakeholders in the value chain are responding with both internal developments and external engagements; early-stage technology companies are announcing funding, strategic partnerships, joint development agreements, and offtake agreements from critical players in the supply chain.
However, chemical recycling is not without its critics. Many question both the environmental credentials and economic viability of these processes. Companies will position their solution as a silver bullet, but the reality is that one does not exist; there are benefits and limitations to every approach but that does not mean each cannot be a piece in the overall puzzle. There are also many examples of failures that should provide suitable warning.
Source: Chemical Recycling and Dissolution of Plastics 2023-2033
Chemical recycling of plastic waste
This is the area with the most attention right now. These tertiary processes break the polymer down either into the constituent monomers or into raw materials further upstream.
Depolymerisation is one of the key emerging processes. This takes a relatively homogeneous feedstock and breaks the material down into its constituent monomers via thermal, chemical, or biological processes. Not all polymers are well suited to this with PET and PS being the most prominent but PU, PC, PLA, PMMA, PA, and more all with industrial activity.
Pyrolysis and gasification can convert mixed plastic waste into pyrolysis oil and syngas, respectively, via thermochemical process. The main difference between the two being the oxygen present. The products could re-enter the polymer supply chain and create a circular economy or not-recycled and used directly for energy or converted into a fuel. Pyrolysis is the most notable here with many chemical companies pursuing this and accounting for the sustainability via a mass balance methodology; there are several technical limitations and specific considerations both upstream (sorting etc) and downstream (cracking etc) but these are being overcome. Like pyrolysis, gasification is not a new process, in fact it has regularly been utilised for removing municipal solid waste (MSW) from landfill and converting to energy. Gasification can be seen as the "backstop" when all other approaches are exhausted, converting the syngas into longer chain hydrocarbons, methanol, and ethanol is a growing area and although most are exploring this as a sustainable fuel, some are looking to have it close the recycling loop.
The chemical recycling market is on the cusp of significant growth. This unbiased market report provides a complete overview of the technology providers as well as a comprehensive list of the current plants and future projects. There is significant momentum, and the maturity will benefit the whole industry; more announcements will arrive but equally not all of those planned will ever be realised.
Overall, IDTechEx forecast that pyrolysis and depolymerisation plants will use over 20 million tonnes/year of plastic waste by 2033. This is a significant number but will require a major investment and continuous engagement from stakeholders across the value chain. Despite this large projection, the global impact should not be overlooked, there is an ever-increasing production of fossil-based plastic, with an annual production of 429m tonnes (OECD, 2019), and immediate challenges with waste management; chemical recycling has a role to play in closing the loop, but it is just one small solution to a greater global challenge.
Chemical recycling also has its notable critics. They point out the flaws in the claimed environmental benefits, such as the assumptions behind life cycle assessments including the comparison that waste would have otherwise been incinerated, and question the economic viability. The economics are challenging and not only influenced by the company's process (such a yield, feedstock requirements by plastic type & form, and efficiency at scale) but also the associate infrastructure, policy and macroeconomic trends; the "green premium" for the products is a key factor, the further prices can be decoupled from that of oil the greater the long-term success of these projects. This report aims to provide a balanced view of both those endorsing and criticising the technology, many criticisms are valid and advocacy groups, alongside failed projects, will inhibit the growth, but IDTechEx do not believe they will prevent the trajectory for this market.
Unsurprisingly, the majority of the engagement is for FMCG packaging, with an ever-increasing number of products being launched, but it is not limited to this sector with various textiles, automotive parts, electronic equipment, and more all significant use-cases.
There also remains a large amount of R&D and earlier stage chemical recycling technologies beginning to have a commercial impact. This includes microwave and enzymatic processes for depolymerization, hydrothermal approaches as a competition to pyrolysis, new polymer developments, and more. These developments are all detailed and appraised throughout the report.
Secondary recycling via dissolution
Secondary recycling involves recovering and re-using the plastic without breaking the chemical bonds. Mechanical routes are very well known but not always suitable and downcycle the product. An emerging space is selectively dissolving the polymer and subsequently precipitating this to produce the pure polymer, ideally this is a low energy process, and the recycled polymer retains properties closer to that of the virgin material.
As with chemical recycling, there are many challenges as clearly demonstrated by failed projects. However, there are numerous players climbing the technology and manufacturing readiness levels and progressing to notable plants. There is key proprietary know-how in both the solvent and process conditions which must be specifically tailored; there is a range of waste polymers being pursued with PS, PP, and PET being the more prominent. This report provides an in-depth analysis on the technology, players, plants, economic viability, environmental impact, and market outlook.
IDTechEx Market Analysis
IDTechEx has a longstanding history in providing an independent technical and market assessment on sustainable plastics. This market report includes:
- 10-year market forecasts for pyrolysis, depolymerization, gasification, and dissolution; appropriate forecasts segmented by different polymer types.
- Overview of the environmental impact and economic viability for each technology.
- Assessment of key manufacturers including their partnerships, funding & capacity expansions.
- Success stories, including product launches, and failures. End-user activity from single-use plastics in FMCG packaging to various textiles, automotive parts, electronic equipment, and beyond.
- Overview of solutions and developments for key polymers including: PP, PET, PS, PE, PU, PMMA, PA, PC, and PLA.
- Analysis of the key market drivers: governments, companies (stakeholders across the value chain including product manufacturers, brands & retailers), NGOs, and public.
- Global view of the status of the plastic recycling market including recycling rates, chain of custody, location, design for recyclability, and more.
- Technology appraisal of chemical recycling and dissolution processes that enable a circular economy. This includes strengths, limitations, challenges, criticisms, and outlook.
- Comprehensive summary of technology providers for each process.
- Complete list of operational plants and planned projects worldwide with corresponding chemical recycling market shares.
- Analysis of latest R&D and technology trends with a commercial impact. This includes microwave and enzymatic processes for depolymerization, hydrothermal approaches as a competition to pyrolysis, new polymer developments, and more.
- Interview-based player profiles.